So this is what austerity theatre looks like. Daniel Evans’ Macbeth is stripped, spare and straight as a dye without an ounce of gimmickry, well maybe just one but we’ll come to that… As with last year’s Othello, Evans has shown a measure of restraint by using a traditional setting and a conventional approach in order to let the verse and the actors do the work. However, last year he had Venetian waterways and star casting to add a bit of sparkle to the tragedy. This year his actors, although recognisable, don’t come trailing a hot HBO boxset, and his stage set is a cold and implacable stoney circle, at once witches’ caldron and castle battlement.
The opening scene gives us an idea of just how ‘by the book’ the evening is going to be. The three hags only lack the pointy hats to make them the archetypal Halloween witches and later, to the eternal credit of the props department, they manage to produce a whole joke-shop inventory of objects to illustrate the ingredients of their ‘hell-broth’. Full marks to whoever made the ‘tiger’s chaudron’ but despite these efforts this shopping list of ghoulish items elicit more of a titter than a shiver.
It is the predictions of these ‘secret, black and midnight hags’ which first spur Macbeth to regicide but Geoffrey Streatfeild’s diffident performance makes the Thane’s true motivation opaque – is he an ambitious chancer, a brutalised soldier or a man in thrall to his ‘fiend-like’ wife? Claudie Blakley’s Lady Macbeth certainly seems the more nakedly power-hungry of the two but in a petulant girlish way which means some of her best lines are lost in a high screech.
Given such an ascetic production you’d hope the rich psychology of the Macbeths would be revealed but Evans seems to hedge his bets on what makes the gruesome twosome tick. On their first meeting a lewd embrace pays lip service to a dark erotic charge that tends to murder, but this theme is never pursued. Much later the Macbeths’ childlessness is offered as a contributing factor to their villainy when Macbeth saves one of Macduff’s babes from slaughter to keep as a talisman to address his later monologues to. But this piece of insight comes too late and rings as hollow as the tinny cry from the fake baby Streatfeild awkwardly clutches for a succession of scenes.
The best glimpse of Macbeth’s inner life comes in the banqueting scene. Lit beautifully by David Plater, Richard Kent creates a luminescent feast of the Dutch Realist school out of which Banquo’s ghost bursts. The sheer physical presence of David Ganly as the dead warrior combined with the distracted terror of Macbeth and desperate covering of his wife makes this by far the most illuminating scene in an otherwise shadowy production.
Credit is due to a fine ensemble cast who speak Shakespeare’s verse with a clarity necessary for such an unadorned presentation of the play. Andrew Jarvis as Duncan bears himself with a venerable kingly power, while Sophie Roberts’ spirited Lady MacDuff injects some feminine vigour into the play, something sometimes lacking from the other Lady M. Christopher Logan has the hardest job of the night playing a total of seven parts. His uncanny resemblance to Carry On’s Charles Hawtry works wonderfully for the comic porter but less well for First Murder and the doubling is too various to be credible.
In short it’s a solid production but perhaps too solid to ever quite take off. The presence of John Dougall as MacDuff – known to Sheffield audiences from the brilliant Propeller company who seek to find more engaging ways to present Shakespeare – reminds us that textual rigour and theatrical novelty needn’t be mutually exclusive.